Four years ago, Oscar-nominated “The Theory of Everything” screenwriter Anthony McCarten sat down for a pint with an old chum in a country pub. What next? his friend asked. McCarten threw out a few ideas — no response. What else do you have?
Well, there was one that was really intimidating, McCarten said, about Winston Churchill. His friend replied, “Do that one. We need a portrait of leadership.”
That was before Brexit, before Trump, so it seems incredibly prescient. But really, when have we not needed leadership? “We’re living in extraordinary times, all the time,” McCarten said. “The issues that assail us are perennial. They haven’t changed since the Greeks picked up a pen.”
A hit at the fall festivals (Metascore: 72), “Darkest Hour” (Focus Features, November 22) is poised to deliver Gary Oldman a Best Actor Oscar as Winston Churchill. But as a World War II talky companion piece to silent action epic “Dunkirk,” it’s also a well-mounted mainstream contender for a long list of nominations, including a Best-Picture nod. Here’s why.
When it came to setting high stakes for his protagonist, McCarten had it easy. He focused on Churchill during his first months as Prime Minister of England — just as France and Belgium fell to the Nazis, when England’s army was stranded and surrounded by German forces on the beach at Dunkirk. That’s when the PM wrote and delivered three of the greatest speeches of all time, and single-mindedly pushed his country to fight the German menace, even as the British were still recovering from The Great War.
“It was a bit daunting, writing dialogue for one of the great wordsmiths in the world,” he said. “I like finding something underneath the public myth that animates them and gives them dimensionality that we didn’t know existed. It’s not easy to find. As the myth fell away, the film was emerging.”
McCarten said the script flowed easily, and he set it up with his old producing partner Lisa Bruce at Working Title, which also produced “The Theory of Everything.” However, this wasn’t the only Churchill movie out there and they wanted a team who could elevate it. That meant waiting three years for Working Title’s go-to virtuoso Joe Wright, who also directed the long-take scan of the beach at Dunkirk in “Atonement.”
“We needed someone who could get inside those words and create visual music with it,” said McCarten. “It was a series of chamber pieces. It had to do justice to the world war, and be a war movie where you never show the war.”
Wright said he would only do the movie if Gary Oldman (Oscar-nominated for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) portrayed the PM. However, Oldman was years younger than his character, and refused to gain weight for the role.
“We wanted a younger man to play him,” said McCarten. “We did not want to see a very senior actor give us the same crusty old curmudgeon. He was a youthful 65, certainly his energies were. It seemed better to cast a younger man and put him into an older body. We wanted the whole movie to be a surprise.”
Once Oldman was convinced, he dug deep into the details: how Churchill demanded double-spaced typewriter pages, how he tipped forward when he walked, how he drank, and why he was singularly equipped to recognize the evil menace of Hitler when others did not. McCarten couldn’t believe Churchill ever considered negotiating with Hitler, but that was the core of this drama: surprising audiences with what they didn’t know.
Kristen Scott Thomas agreed to play Lady Churchill, and Stephen Dillane (“Game of Thrones”) proved a powerful Pacifist war-cabinet foil for warmonger Churchill. “It’s important for the leader to see the dialectic,” said McCarten, “to be able to see the other side.”
King George VI plays an important role as the “voice of rationality, against whom Winston would seem a little unhinged,” said McCarten. “So we’re doubting him too.” Australian Ben Mendelsohn came in as the ramrod-straight royal. We’ve seen others portray George VI, so there’s baggage — he’s played by Oscar-winner Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech,” and by Jared Harris in “The Crown.”
“He’s the craziest dude ever,” said Wright. “I thought, if Ben could synthesize his extraordinary hot energy into a sharp laser beam, then we might be able to do something special.”
Mendelsohn is blunt in his assessment of Churchill. “He was a mess,” he said. “He had a storied career, he messed up at Gallipoli, he made calls that just didn’t go the right way a bunch of times. He was seen by many as a great risk. The desire for a peaceful resolution was immense. We got through by the skin of our teeth.”
Oldman realized through his volumes of reading why Churchill was so right about Hitler. During his 10 years on the sidelines, he read history and wrote a biography of his ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, who was in conflict with France’s Louis XIV and encountered religious cleansing. Winston Churchill “looked at the big picture,” said Oldman. “He saw patterns in history and was doing mental press-ups. He believed the same religious cleansing was happening in Germany, researched in Munich, and saw it first hand. Working on the biography made him a statesman because he was using words.”
Oldman was like a kid at Christmas with the speeches. “I’ve got the opportunity to say, ‘We shall fight them on the beaches!'” he said. “The worst thing that could happen: You could stink.”
Oldman found an impish childishness and humanity inside the man, who was full of energy yet took a nap every afternoon, who drank constantly but never seemed to get drunk. “Everybody drank,” he said. “He had a thimble full of scotch and water he would nurse throughout the day. Sometimes people thought he was drunk because he had a little lisp, they took that as a little half-cup.”
Oldman brought venerated Japanese makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuiji (“Planet of the Apes,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) out of retirement to perform his three-and-a-half-hour daily makeup magic. It took months to find the right balance to look like Churchill “without losing the performance behind the prosthetics,” said Wright. “To us, Churchill is a huge great heavy statue on top of a plinth; I wanted to bring him down from that and examine him eye to eye, with as intimate a portrait as possible. That meant a lot of closeups.”
His makeup formula is “very Colonel Sanders,” Oldman said. “It’s very sophisticated, soft and delicate; he uses some special softening agent. It moves, has pores, has textures.”
Oldman is “a shape shifter,” said Wright. “Certain actors can make you see things that aren’t really there. They do that by the power of their imagination, like mime artists who believe a wall is there to such an extent that the audience believes it’s there too. Gary has that ability.”
McCarten and Wright trawled through the narrative to turn their script into a bespoke suit. While there are impressive swooping crane shots, dramatic lighting in Parliament, and out-the-car-window Churchill POV tracking shots of slow-motion London pedestrians (inspired by the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”), the movie was largely shot in Manchester and London, on sound stages. Wright pulled back on the showy stuff, favoring storyboarded talking-heads coverage over sweeping big-scale visuals. “I’m no longer interested in decoration,” said Wright. “I wanted a minimalist approach; every shot was fulfilling its purpose in its storytelling. This film has a sparser, more economical cinematic grammar.”
In the editing room, it was tricky to find the right balance of humor and pathos, between the Churchills’ domestic life and the external political machinations. For Wright, the most challenging scene was McCarten’s invented moment when Churchill meets Londoners on the Tube and asks them about Hitler. It took three days to shoot Oldman’s conversation with a subway car of day players who represented a swath of Great Britain. “It’s the lynchpin of the movie,” said Wright. “It could have tipped over into saccharine sentimentality; the characters he meets in the underground were utterly vital. I wanted to present the British people as lovingly and kindly as possible. Drama is about how people connect or are unable to connect. At the beginning of the film, he’s locked in a bubble. He’s unable to reach them.”
For Oldman, with that scene “you cover a great deal of real estate in a short time,” he said. “It’s a device to show the connection; it still has the spirit of reality behind it.”
The filmmakers had no idea the movie would prove so resonant. “Events like Brexit and the U.S. election crashed like a great tsunami over what we were doing,” said Wright. “What we see happening around us at the moment is frightening, but I’m impressed by the level of resistance. Churchill fought tooth and nail, he was a lone voice, and yet he resisted totalitarianism and bigotry and hate. Maybe that has something to do with why we need this film at this moment.”
Next up: McCarten wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody” (December 2018), starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. Mendelsohn is working with Steven Spielberg on ’80s-influenced future thriller “Ready Player One” (Warner Bros., March), as well as Nicole Holofcener’s suburban film “The Land of Steady Habits” (Netflix). Wright is adapting John Williams’ academic classic “Stoner” (Universal) starring Casey Affleck for producer Jason Blum, with Roger Deakins shooting and Jack Fisk designing. And Oldman has more of his usual B-movie action fare coming up. “I may be chasing this one for a while,” he said, “in the rising bar kind of sense. It’s a glorious role; it’s about something.”